Annie Heart and the poisoned salmon sandwich mystery that resulted in one of the biggest trials Cornwall had ever seen
When Alice Thomas died of poisoning, suspicion fell on her friend Annie Hearn who was tried for murder. Rob Bonser-Wilton writes about how events were not quite as they seemed and resulted in a trial the likes of which Cornwall had never seen before.
Annie Hearn – Poisoned Salmon Sandwiches on a 1930 Trip to Bude
Sarah Ann ‘Annie’ Everard was born on June 2 1885 in Legsby Road, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire. She was a pupil of the town’s Wesleyan Day School and Grimsby Secondary School. In 1904 aged nineteen, she moved to Harrogate to teach at her aunt’s cookery school. She nursed her sick mother at Grindleford, near Sheffield for two years until she died, and then nursed her sister Mabel, who was suffering from consumption, until she died in 1917.
It was an episode rooted in 1919 which suggested Annie’s personality might have had a difficult relationship with the truth. Annie claimed that on June 6 1919 she had married Dr Leonard Wilmot Hearn in London, and placed an announcement to this effect in a Harrogate Newspaper. In the same newspaper there appeared notification of Leonard Wilmot Hearn’s death on June 12: ‘suddenly at Bedford House, Southampton Row, London. Wilmot Hearn, M.D., recently returned from service in France.’ In 1931 when the story of Annie Hearn, the Cornish salmon sandwich poisoner, gripped the nation, Daily Mail reporters could find no trace of the marriage or the death in the registers of Somerset House, and the medical register contained no Dr Leonard Wilmot Hearn.
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Mrs Annie Hearn’s first reported brush with the criminal courts occurred on New Years Eve 1919 , when she and her sister Lydia ‘Minnie’ Everard appeared before Weston-super-mare magistrates, charged on remand with stealing articles of jewellery to the total value of £51 15s, the property of Annie Henrietta Bullus, proprietoress of a boarding house ‘The Woodlands’, Worle, near Weston-super-mare, where the sisters had resided between November and December 1919.
The Wells Journal of January 2 1920 reported that the hearing of the case was delayed due to Annie Hearn being seized with a fainting attack. It was in fact only Annie who was tried before the Somerset Quarter Sessions on Thursday January 8, when she was found not guilty of the alleged theft and discharged by the court.
In December 1919 Annie and Lydia had moved from the boarding house in Worle, renting two rooms on Weston-super-mare High Street, when it was reported Minnie was in delicate health, suffering from gastric catarrh, and that after staying in Weston for several months, the sisters moved to Devon. In 1925 Lydia moved in with Annie at Trenhorne House between Congdons Shop and Lewannick, near Launceston. They rented half of the property where they lived with their invalid aunt Mary Ann Everard, the other half of the property being the residence of Mrs Elizabeth Spear.
Miss Mary Everard, fell ill and died in September 1926, aged 76, after being nursed devotedly by her niece Annie. In her will Mary left everything she possessed ‘to my dear niece Sarah Ann Hearn, except my mother’s picture.’ In July 1930 Lydia died, aged 52, after years of suffering with poor gastric health. Only 100 yards along the road from Trenhorne House was Trenhorne Farm, the residence of William Thomas, and his wife Alice. They felt sorry for their neighbour Annie, in the loss of her aunt and now her sister. Alice made her clotted cream and junkets, which William delivered to Trenhorne House. William had trusted Annie sufficiently to loan her £38 (approximately £2000 in 2023) two years previously, when she was short of funds.
On Saturday October 18 1930 in an act of kindness, William and Alice had invited Annie to join them on an afternoon car outing to the Cornish seaside town of Bude, in the course of which they dropped William’s mother at her home near Bude, after she had been staying with them at Trenhorne Farm.
On arrival in Bude, Alice and Annie walked around the shops whilst William had his hair cut. At 5.00pm they met in Littlejohn’s Café where William ordered tea, bread and butter and cakes. Annie made her own contribution to the meal, producing tinned salmon sandwiches and chocolate cake from her bag which the three of them shared. Afterwards Alice and Annie went for a stroll while William visited the nearby Grove Hotel for a couple of whiskies. When they met up again Alice complained of a ‘sticky taste’ in her mouth. On the drive back to Trenhorne Farm, a number of stops were necessary because Mrs Thomas was suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. Arriving back at Trenhorne, Dr Graham Saunders was summoned. He diagnosed Alice as suffering from a non-life threatening case of food poisoning, and recommended a diet of whitebait and water.
Annie now in the role of a caring neighbour stayed at Trenhorne Farm to nurse Alice, preparing meals to aid her recovery. The doctor was sufficiently reassured to end his daily visits. The following Sunday Alice felt well enough to come down to lunch prepared by Annie – roast mutton, potatoes and sprouts. Alice ate her lunch in the dining room whilst the others dined in the kitchen. At 9.00pm William carried his wife upstairs and gave her an aspirin tablet from a bottle supplied by Annie. In the night Alice was again taken ill.
The doctor called by William the next morning was so shocked at the deterioration of Alice, who was now delirious, unable to use her legs and partly paralysed that he called in a consultant, who agreed with the suspicions of Dr Saunders, that Alice was suffering from arsenical poisoning. She was immediately transferred to Plymouth City Hospital and was admitted just before midnight on Monday November 3. At 9.35am the next morning she died.
A post-mortem was ordered and an analysis of the organs by the Exeter city analyst found them to contain 0.85 grains (56mg) of arsenic. William learnt of the results which should have been confidential, and he warned Annie that there might be police inquiries and an inquest. The rumours spread generating a tense atmosphere at Alice’s funeral on Saturday 8 November. The next day in the dining room at Trenhorne Farm, Alice’s brother Percy Parsons said to Annie Hearn: ‘We haven’t met, but I’ve heard about you and them tinned sandwiches you were responsible for. What d’you put in them? That’s what I’d like to know. Something wrong from all accounts. This needs clearing up, ‘tis not the end of it, no way.’
On November 11 1930 William Thomas received a letter from Annie Hearn posted nearby the previous afternoon, maintaining her innocence but threatening suicide. William fetched a police officer. They broke into Trenhorne House to find it deserted. Annie Hearn was missing. It was established that she had hired Hector Ollett, the Congdon’s Corner shopkeeper, to drive her to the South Coast fishing port of Looe. From the bridge where Hector dropped her off, the trail went cold, until several days later, her check coat was found near a cliff edge. An immediate conclusion, which came to be ruled out in time, was that Annie had committed suicide by jumping from the cliff.
An inquest into the death of Alice Thomas opened in Plymouth on November 24. William Thomas was asked three key questions:
‘Did your wife ever object to Mrs Hearn coming to the house?’ – ‘Never.’
‘You and Mrs Thomas were friendly with Mrs Hearn’s sister?’ – ‘Yes.’
‘Did you ever give your wife any cause to be jealous of Mrs Hearn?’ – ‘Never.’
A staff member at Launceston grocer and chemist shop Shuker and Reed confirmed that in 1928 he had sold an arsenic based weedkiller to Annie Hearn. He stated the powder was practically ‘all arsenic’. The shop’s poisons book signature against a 1lb tin of Coopers Powder matched that of Mrs Hearn.
A search of Trenhorne House on November 20 found no trace of arsenic. On November 26 the verdict of the inquest was delivered: ‘Murder by arsenical poisoning by some person or persons unknown.’
The police issued a photograph and a description in their ongoing search for Annie Hearn: Mrs Hearn is aged 45, 5ft 2ins or 3ins in height, with grey eyes, shingled hair, of sallow complexion, and medium build. There is a notable defect in one of the front teeth. She walks briskly, carries her head slightly to the left and when in conversation she has the habit of looking away from the person she is addressing. She is well spoken but has a north country accent. She is of rather reserved disposition.
Meanwhile police began to question the circumstances of the deaths of Annie’s aunt Miss Mary Everard in 1926 and her sister Lydia only six months ago from chronic gastric catarrh and colitis. The symptoms of their illnesses being consistent with arsenic poisoning, the Home Office ordered the exhumation of their bodies from Lewannick Churchyard. In a snow and sleet storm on Tuesday December 9 1930 the bodies were exhumed, examined by Plymouth pathologist Dr Eric Wordley, and samples despatched to Home Office analyst Dr Roche Lynch, who found in the remains of the bodies ‘distinct quantities of arsenic’.
Now the possible murderer of three women – What had happened to Annie Hearn? She had in fact faked her own suicide. She had arrived in Looe with a wicker basket as her only luggage. Less than an hour later she had purchased an attache case for 3s 11d and by 10.00pm she had arrived by train in Torquay, Devon, where as a ‘Mrs Ferguson of Heavitree’, Exeter, she signed the register at St Leonards Hotel. Next day she moved to lodgings on Ellacombe Church Road, as ‘Mrs Faithful’ whose husband was ill in the local hospital.
A week later Annie found employment as Mrs Faithful in answer to an advertisement for a cook-housekeeper to architect Cecil Powell. Mr Powell was impressed by his new servant who seemed to be of above average education and who went to church on Sundays. Alone in her room Annie cut out pictures of herself from national newspapers. A photo which accompanied the reward announcement in the Daily Mail looked familiar to Powell ‘in a vague sort of way’ but he was reluctant to act due to his aversion to publicity and the delicate health of his wife.
However on January 1 1931 in the New Years Sales at Williams and Cox on the Strand, Torquay, Annie chose a new winter coat to replace the one left on the cliff edge at Looe. The coat required shortening and Annie left a deposit in the name of Mrs Dennis. When Powell’s son took delivery of the coat in the name of Dennis, Annie gave Powell a suspicious explanation, he consulted his friend the mayor who contacted Launceston Police.
On January 12 in the fading light, sent on a prearranged errand by Powell, Annie was intercepted by a Launceston police officer Sergeant Trebilcock. ‘Mrs Hearn?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘I believe I know you. I think you know Lewannick.’ ‘Yes, I have been there.’ ‘Then I must ask you to come to the police station.’ At the station Annie was charged ‘that between 18 October and 3 November 1930 at the parish of Lewannick, you did kill and murder one Alice Maud Thomas.’
The numerous appearances of Annie Hearn before Launceston Magistrates – each one the subject of an arduous car journey for Annie and her escorts from Exeter Prison across Dartmoor, long before the conception of the present day A30 Dual Carriageway, attracted intense press and public interest.
On February 24 Annie was further charged with the murder of her sister Lydia Everard. Newspapers on Annie’s 12th appearance on March 11 1931 reported that she stood in an easy attitude, hands clasped in front of her wearing a long, claret coloured coat with fur cuffs and collar. Percy Parsons recounted to the court the day of his sister’s funeral: ‘Some lady met us at the door. I don’t know who she was.’ But he identified her now as ‘the lady sitting over there’. He confirmed that he had never visited his sister at Trenhorne Farm. He was asked, ‘Was that on account of a family feud?’ and responded, ‘I can’t say. I was never invited.’
Large crowds gathered outside Launceston Magistrates Court for each of Annie’s appearances. Local opinion was completely against her, but it was a piece of good fortune which arguably ultimately saved Annie from the hangman’s noose. Cecil Powell, the Torquay employer insisted that the £500 reward he received from the Daily Mail for the Annie’s successful apprehension would be donated to fund Annie’s defence, which enabled her to afford the services of the most brilliant barrister of the era, Norman Birkett, K.C, assisted in court by rising star barrister Dingle Foot.
On June 15 1931 the trial of Annie Hearn opened before a Judge and Jury at Bodmin Crown Court. Annie pleaded not guilty to the murder of Alice Thomas, and her sister Lydia Everard.
The prosecution case rested heavily on the expert evidence of Home Office Analyst Dr Roche Lynch. In evidence he stated that the cause of Alice’s death was arsenic poisoning and that a calculation from an examination of her organs determined she had ingested a ten grains dose. He also stated that Lydia had large quantities of arsenic in her body.
Counsel for the defence refuted these findings on the basis that the soil at Lewannick contained high levels of arsenic. They argued that just a tiny amount of local soil could have contaminated the samples taken at the exhumation postmortem of Lydia and been responsible for the high levels of arsenic. Dr Wordley, the Plymouth Pathologist who conducted the autopsy at the graveside was forced to admit he left Lydia’s organs for an hour in open jars next to her grave, and that there had been no precautions against contamination.
The court heard evidence from the Launceston chemist who had told the Inquest for Alice that he had sold Annie arsenic-based weedkiller. The defence highlighted the fact that this brand of weedkiller was of a bright blue colour, and it was demonstrated to the jury that it would have turned the bread bright blue too if it had been used in the sandwiches consumed on the outing to Bude as alleged.
The only witness called by the defence was Annie Hearn herself. The jury were impressed by her the calm insistence throughout her evidence that she was innocent. She denied poisoning Alice or Lydia, admitting that she had panicked at the prospect of being a suspect in their deaths, and had intended to commit suicide, but could not go through with it, and so had hoped to begin a new life in Torquay.
It was for Mr H. du Parcq KC to sum up for the prosecution, which he did, although clearly unwell to the extent that he eventually fainted in court. Norman Birkett for the defence focused his summing up in respect of Lydia Everard on the high levels of arsenic in the Lewannick soil and the potential for contamination of the grave side post-mortem samples.
However this was not strictly true, as the arsenic present in the soil was not in soluble form and so any contamination would have been unlikely to have affected test results. In respect of the alleged deliberate poisoning of Alice Thomas, Birkett asked the jury: If a packet of sandwiches was placed on a table to be shared amongst three people, how was the poisoner to ensure the intended victim, Alice, took the poisoned sandwich, especially as the bread would have been stained bright blue?
The Judge Mr Justice Roche addressed the jury, ruling that there was insufficient evidence in the case of Lydia Everard and instructed the jury to acquit Annie of her murder. He asked the jury to focus on two questions in the murder of Alice Thomas: Was her death due to arsenic poisoning? and if the answer was yes, did the Annie Hearn administer that poison? If the salmon sandwiches consumed at Bude had been laced with arsenic, either Annie Hearn or Willilam Thomas must have been responsible. The Judge explained that it was for the prosecution to convince the jury that the poisoner was not William Thomas, rather than the responsibility of the defence to convince the jury that he was the poisoner. The jury retired to deliberate for less than an hour before returning to the court to find Annie Hearn ‘not guilty’ of the murder of Alice Thomas.
She left court a free woman and left Cornwall for good, returning to the north of England, and in all likelihood changed her name to live out her life in obscurity. William Thomas was never charged with the murder of his wife, a crime that remains unsolved. We will never know if there was anything more than friendship between William and Annie, and if Alice had been the only obstacle between them. On December 14 1949 William Thomas died on a remote farm in the vicinity of Braddock, Cornwall, where he had existed as a lonely recluse since shortly after the conclusion of the trial, in a case which remains a mystery over 90 years later.
Rob Bonser-Wilton, is a proud Cornishman now living ‘up-country’ who dedicates his time to researching and writing on the subject of Westcountry True Crime. He is at present writing a book on the St Austell Giffard Family Tragedy of the winter of 1952/1953. His hashtag #Westcountryjury be found on Facebook, or Twitter @westcountryjury, and at his website www.westcountrywriter.co.uk